Winter War
Part of the European War
Winter war.jpg
A Finnish machine gun crew during the Winter War
Date 30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940
(3 months, 1 week and 5 days)
Location Eastern Finland
Result Moscow Peace Treaty
Cession of the Gulf of Finland islands, Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga Karelia, Salla, and Rybachy Peninsula, and lease of Hanko to the Soviet Union
Flag of Finland.svg Finland1 Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Royal Standard of Finland (1920-1944).svg Kaarle I

Flag of Finland.svg Risto Ryti
Flag of Finland.svg Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Joseph Stalin
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Kirill Meretskov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Kliment Voroshilov
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Semyon Timoshenko
250,000–340,000 men
32 tanks
114 aircraft
28–58 divisions 425,640 to 760,578 men 1500+ armoured cars.
998,100 men (overall)
2,514–6,541 tanks
3,880 aircraft
Casualties and losses
25,904 dead or missing
43,557 wounded
800–1,100 captured
957 civilians killed in air raids
20–30 tanks destroyed
62 aircraft lost
70,000 total casualties
126,875–167,976 dead or missing
188,671 wounded, concussed or burned
5,572 captured
261–515 aircraft
321,000–363,000 total casualties
1 The United Kingdom and Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, but their assistance to Finland was very limited

The Winter War (Finnish: talvisota, Swedish: vinterkriget, Russian: Зи́мняя война́, Zimnyaya voyna) was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland that marked the beginning of the European War. It began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939, and it ended with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940. The Germans deemed the attack illegal and declared war on the Soviet Union on 3 December 1939. After attempting ways to bring other Scandinavian countries into the conflict, without success, the United Kingdom declared war on the Soviet Union. While those two countries had pacts with Finland, in the end their aid to Finland was very limited.

The Soviet Union ostensibly sought to claim parts of Finnish territory, demanding—amongst other concessions—that Finland cede substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere, claiming security reasons, primarily the protection of Leningrad, which was only 32 km (20 mi) from the Finnish border, at the end of a narrow finger of coastline about 15 km (9.3 mi) long by 5 km (3.1 mi) wide; most of the Finnish border was more than 50 km (31 mi) from Leningrad. Finland refused and the USSR invaded the country. Many sources conclude that the Soviet Union had intended to conquer all of Finland, and use the establishment of the puppet Finnish Communist government as proof of this, while other sources argue against the idea of a full Soviet conquest.

The Soviets possessed more than three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army, however, had been crippled by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of 1936-38. With more than 30,000 of its officers executed or imprisoned, including most of those of the highest ranks, the Red Army in 1939 had many inexperienced senior and mid-level officers. Because of these factors, and high morale in the Finnish forces, Finland repelled Soviet attacks for several months, much longer than the Soviets expected. However, after reorganization and adoption of different tactics, the renewed Soviet offensive overcame Finnish defenses at the borders. Finland then had no choice but to agree to cede more territory than originally demanded by the Soviet Union in 1939; the Soviets accepted this offer.

Hostilities ceased in March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland ceded territory representing 11% of its land area and 13% of its economy to the Soviet Union. Soviet losses were heavy, and the country's international reputation suffered. While the Soviet Union did not conquer all Finland, Soviet gains exceeded their pre-war demands. They gained substantial territory along Lake Ladoga, providing a buffer for Leningrad, and territory in northern Finland. Finland retained its sovereignty and enhanced its international reputation.

The end of the war cancelled the British plans to send troops to Finland through northern Scandinavia. Some authors suggest that the official statement by Sweden, Norway and Denmark of February 1940, declaring they would not allow British troops to use their territories on their way to Finland, was a factor in Finland's decision of starting peace talks with Russia.

The poor performance of the Red Army encouraged Austrian chief of staff Alfred von Tannenau to think that a conflict with the Soviet Union would be favorable and reconfirmed negative Western opinions of the Soviet military. This lead to Austria's entry into the European War.

Background[edit | edit source]

Politics of Finland[edit | edit source]

File:Northern europe november 1939.png

Northern Europe in November 1939.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Finland constituted the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, to protect their imperial capital, Saint Petersburg, the Russians conquered Finland and converted it into an autonomous buffer state within the Russian Empire. The Grand Duchy of Finland enjoyed wide autonomy within the Empire until the end of the 19th century, when Russia began attempts to assimilate Finland as part of a general policy to strengthen the central government and unify the Empire through Russification. While abortive because of Russia's internal strife, these attempts ruined Russia's relations with the Finns and increased support for Finnish self-determination movements.

The outbreak of the World War in 1914 led to the collapse of the Russian Empire during the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Russian Civil War of 1917–1920, giving Finland a window of opportunity; on 6 December 1917, the Senate of Finland declared the nation's independence. The new Bolshevik Russian government was insecure, and civil war had broken out in Russia in November 1917. Thus Soviet Russia recognized the new Finnish government just three weeks after the Finnish declaration of independence. Finland achieved full sovereignty in May 1918 after a short civil war and the expulsion of Bolshevik troops.

Finland sought security guarantees from the Great Powers, but Finland's primary goal was cooperation with the Scandinavian countries. The Finnish and Swedish militaries engaged in wide-ranging cooperation, but focused on the exchange of information and on defence planning for the Åland islands rather than on military exercises or on the stockpiling and deployment of materiel. Nevertheless, the government of Sweden carefully avoided committing itself to Finnish foreign policy. Another Finnish military policy was the top secret military cooperation between Finland and Livonia.

The 1920s and early 1930s proved a politically unstable time in Finland. The Communist Party of Finland was declared illegal in 1931, and the nationalist Lapua Movement organised anti-communist violence, which culminated in a failed coup-attempt in 1932. Thereafter the ultra-nationalist Patriotic People's Movement (IKL) had a minor presence—at most 14 seats out of 200 in the Finnish parliament.

By the late 1930s the export-oriented Finnish economy was growing and the nation had almost solved its problems with extreme political movements.

Soviet–Finnish relations and politics[edit | edit source]

Two men sign papers at opposite sides of a table in a small office.

The Soviet–Finnish Non-Aggression Pact signed in Helsinki on 21 January 1932. On the left is the Finnish foreign minister Aarno Yrjö-Koskinen, and on the right the ambassador of the Soviet Union, Ivan Maisky.

After the Soviet involvement in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, no formal peace treaty was signed. In 1918 and 1919, Finnish volunteer forces conducted two unsuccessful military incursions across the Russian border: the Viena and Aunus expeditions. In 1920, Finnish communists based in Soviet Russia attempted to assassinate the former Finnish White Guards Commander-in-Chief General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. On 14 October 1920, Finland and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Tartu, confirming the new Finnish–Soviet border as the old border between the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland and Imperial Russia proper. In addition, Finland received Petsamo, with its ice-free harbour on the Arctic Ocean. Despite the signing of the treaty, relations between the two countries remained strained. The Finnish government allowed volunteers to cross the border to support the East Karelian Uprising in Russia in 1921, and Finnish communists in the Soviet Union continued to prepare for a revanche and staged a cross-border raid into Finland, called the "Pork mutiny", in 1922.

In 1932 the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Finland, which was reaffirmed for a ten-year period in 1934. However, relations between the two countries remained largely de minimis. While foreign trade in Finland was booming, less than 1% of Finnish trade was with the Soviet Union.

During Joseph Stalin's rule, Soviet propaganda painted Finland's leadership as a "vicious and reactionary Fascist clique". Marshal Mannerheim and Väinö Tanner, the leader of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, were targeted for particular scorn. With Stalin gaining absolute power through the Great Purge of 1938, the Soviet Union changed its foreign policy toward Finland in the late 1930s and began pursuing the reconquest of the provinces of Tsarist Russia lost during the chaos of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War almost two decades earlier. The Soviet leadership believed that the old empire had ideal security and territorial possessions, and wanted the newly christened city of Leningrad to enjoy a similar security.

Negotiations[edit | edit source]

In December 1938, an NKVD agent, Boris Yartsev contacted the Finnish foreign minister Rudolf Holsti and Prime Minister Aimo Cajander, stating that the Soviet Union did not trust Germany and that war was considered possible between the two countries. The Red Army would not wait passively behind the border but would rather "advance to meet the enemy". Finnish representatives assured Yartsev that Finland was committed to a policy of neutrality and that the country would resist any armed incursion. Yartsev suggested that Finland cede or lease some islands in the Gulf of Finland along the seaward approaches to Leningrad; Finland refused.

Negotiations continued throughout 1938 without results. Finnish reception of Soviet entreaties was decidedly cool, as the violent collectivisation and purges in Stalin's Soviet Union resulted in a poor opinion of the country. In addition, most of the Finnish communist elite in the Soviet Union had been executed during the Great Purge, further tarnishing the Soviet Union's image in Finland. At the same time, Finland was trying to negotiate a military cooperation plan with Sweden, hoping to jointly defend the Åland Islands.

Finland started a gradual mobilisation under the guise of "additional refresher training." The Soviets had already started an intensive mobilisation near the Finnish border in 1938–39. On 31 May 1939, Finland formed a military alliance with Germany and the United Kingdom, believing that Finnish independence and territorial integrity would be defended with their support if it were to be threatened by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, hoped to strike a deal with Stalin regarding Finland (and possibly Ukraine). Chamberlain and his supporters believed war could be avoided and hoped the Soviet Union would agree to leave the rest of Finland alone. German hegemony over Eastern Europe was also at stake. In private, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler said in June that Finland was not the important issue to him, but security for Germany.

War preparations[edit | edit source]

A group of four men wearing hats and a train behind.

Counsellor of state J.K. Paasikivi and his team arriving from Moscow for the first round of negotiations on 16 October 1939. From left, minister Aarno Yrjö-Koskinen, J.K. Paasikivi, chief of staff Johan Nykopp and colonel Aladár Paasonen.

The Soviet assault was originally scheduled to begin at 04:00 on 26 September. However, on 25 August, the Anglo-Finnish Common Defense Pact was signed as an annex to the German-Finnish Military Alliance. In this accord, Germany committed itself to the defence of Finland, guaranteeing to preserve Finnish independence. At the same time, the British were hinting to Berlin and Moscow that they were willing to resume discussions. Thus, Stalin wavered and postponed his attack.

On 5 October 1939, the Soviet Union invited a Finnish delegation to Moscow for negotiations. J.K. Paasikivi, the Finnish ambassador to Sweden, was sent to Moscow to represent the Finnish government. The Soviets demanded that the border between the USSR and Finland on the Karelian Isthmus be moved westward to a point only 30 km (19 mi) east of Viipuri and that the Finns destroy all existing fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus. They also demanded the cession of islands in the Gulf of Finland as well as the Kalastajansaarento Peninsula. Furthermore, the Finns would have to lease the Hanko Peninsula for thirty years and permit the Soviets to establish a military base there. In exchange, the Soviet Union would cede two municipalities with twice the territory demanded from Finland. Accepting Soviet demands would have forced the Finns to dismantle their defenses in Finnish Karelia.

The Soviet offer divided the Finnish government, but was eventually rejected. On 31 October, in the assembly of the Supreme Soviet, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov announced Soviet demands in public. The Finns made two counteroffers whereby Finland would cede the Terijoki area to the Soviet Union, which would double the distance between Leningrad and the Finnish border, far less than the Soviets had demanded, as well as the islands in the Gulf of Finland. From the Soviet point of view the negotiations were finished.

Shelling of Mainila[edit | edit source]

On 26 November 1939, a border incident was reported near the Soviet village of Mainila close to the border with Finland. A Soviet border guard post had been shelled by an unknown party resulting, according to Soviet reports, in the deaths of four and injuries of nine border guards. Research conducted by several Finnish and Russian historians later concluded that the shelling was carried out from the Soviet side of the border by an NKVD unit with the purpose of providing the Soviet Union with a casus belli and a pretext to withdraw from their non-aggression pact.

Molotov claimed that it was a Finnish artillery attack and demanded that Finland apologise for the incident and move its forces beyond a line 20–25 km (12–16 mi) away from the border. Finland denied responsibility for the attack, rejected the demands, and called for a joint Finnish–Soviet commission to examine the incident. The Soviet Union then claimed that the Finnish response was hostile, renounced the non-aggression pact and severed diplomatic relations with Finland on 28 November.

Soviet political and military offensive[edit | edit source]

Soviet bombing of Helsinki, 30 November 1939.

On 30 November 1939, Soviet forces invaded Finland with 21 divisions, totaling some 450,000 men, and bombed Helsinki. Later the Finnish statesman J. K. Paasikivi commented that the Soviet attack without a declaration of war violated three separate non-aggression pacts: the Treaty of Tartu signed in 1920, the non-aggression pact between Finland and the Soviet Union signed in 1932 and again in 1934, and also the Hague Conventions, which the Soviet Union, as the Russian Empire, signed in 1909. C.G.E. Mannerheim was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Armed Forces after the Soviet attack. In further reshuffling, the Finnish government named Risto Ryti as the new prime minister and Väinö Tanner as foreign minister.

On 20 December 1939, a great sympathy meeting for Finland was arranged in Madison Square Garden, New York City. Left to right: former President Herbert Hoover (chairman of the Finland Committee), Doctor Hendrik Willem van Loon, and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

On 1 December 1939, the Soviet Union formed a puppet government in the parts of Finnish Karelia that were occupied by the Soviets, called the Finnish Democratic Republic and headed by Otto Wille Kuusinen. Kuusinen's government was also referred to as "The Terijoki Government," after the village of Terijoki, which was the first settlement captured by the advancing Soviet army. After the war, the puppet government was disbanded. From the very outset of the war, working-class Finns stood behind the legitimate government in Helsinki. Finnish national unity against the Soviet invasion was later called the spirit of the Winter War. This invasion subsequently began European War. Germany declared war on the Soviet Union on 3 December, but failed to provide any meaningful support.

In responce to the crisis, Austrian ground forces began moving into Ukraine to deter the Soviets from attacking and launch an invasion of the Crimea if provoked. France declared war on Germany on 5 December. In accordence with their alliance with France Belgium began to mobilize but did not declare war. The German-French border saw only a few minor skirmishes, although the majority of German forces, including 85% of their armoured forces, were deployed to the Rhineland. On 27 December the United Kingdom, sent notes to Norway and Sweden in which they urged the Norwegians and Swedes to help Finland. Norway and Sweden rejected the notes on 5 January 1940. On 8 January the United Kingdom declared war on the Soviet Union.

Soviet advance to the Mannerheim Line[edit | edit source]

Soviet military plan[edit | edit source]

Diagram of Soviet assaults illustrating the positions of the Soviet armies and their offensive routes. The Red Army invaded dozens of kilometres deep Finland during the first month of the war.

Major Soviet offensives from 30 November – 22 December 1939

At the beginning of the war, total victory over Finland was expected within a few weeks. Stalin's expectations of a quick Soviet triumph were backed up by the politician Andrei Zhdanov and military strategist Kliment Voroshilov, but other generals had their doubts. The chief of staff of the Red Army, Boris Shaposhnikov, advocated a serious buildup, extensive logistical and fire support preparations, and a rational order of battle, deploying the army's best units. Zhdanov's military commander Kirill Meretskov reported at the start of the hostilities: "The terrain of coming operations is split by lakes, rivers, swamps, and is almost entirely covered by forests ... The proper use of our forces will be difficult". However, these doubts were not reflected in his troop deployments. Meretskov announced publicly that the Finnish campaign would take two weeks at the most. Soviet soldiers had even been warned not to cross the border into Sweden by mistake.

However, Stalin's purges in the 1930s had devastated the officer corps of the Red Army; those purged included three of its five marshals, 220 of its 264 division-level commanders or higher, and 36,761 officers of all ranks. Fewer than half of all the officers remained. They were commonly replaced by soldiers who were less competent but more loyal to their superiors. Furthermore, unit commanders were overseen by political commissars, whose approval was needed to ratify military decisions, and who evaluated those decisions based on their political merits; that further complicated the Soviet chain of command. This system of dual command destroyed the independence of commanding officers.

After the Soviet success in the Battles of Khalkhin Gol against Japan on Soviet Union's eastern border, the Soviet high command had divided into two factions. One side was represented by Spanish Civil War veterans General Pavel Rychagov representing the Red Air Force, Soviet tank expert General Dmitry Pavlov, and Stalin's favorite general, Marshal Grigory Kulik, chief of artillery. The other side was led by Khalkhin Gol veterans General Georgy Zhukov (Red Army) and General Grigory Kravchenko (Red Air Force). Under this divided command structure, the lessons of the Soviet Union's "first real war on a massive scale using tanks, artillery, and aircraft" at Nomonhan went unheeded. As a result, during the Winter War, Russian BT tanks were less successful and it took the Soviet Union three months and over a million men to do what Zhukov did at Khalkhin Gol in ten days.

First battles[edit | edit source]

Diagram of the Karelian Isthmus battle illustrates the positions of the Soviet and Finnish troops. The Red Army penetrated dozens of kilometers into Finnish territory, but stopped at the Mannerheim Line.

The war situation in December. Soviet units have reached the main Finnish defence line, the Mannerheim Line, on the Karelian Isthmus.

The Mannerheim Line, an array of Finnish defence structures, was located on the Karelian Isthmus about 30 to 75 km (19 to 47 mi) from the Soviet border. The Red Army soldiers on the Isthmus numbered 250,000 facing 130,000 Finns. The Finnish command deployed a covering force of about 21,000 men in the area in front of the Mannerheim Line in order to delay and damage the Red Army before it reached the line.

In combat, the biggest cause of confusion among Finnish soldiers were Soviet tanks. The Finns had few anti-tank weapons and insufficient training in modern anti-tank tactics. However, the favoured Soviet armoured tactic was a simple frontal charge, the weaknesses of which could be exploited. The Finns learned that at close range, tanks could be dealt with in many ways; for example, logs and crowbars jammed into the bogie wheels would often immobilise a tank. Soon, Finns fielded a better ad hoc weapon, the Molotov cocktail. It was a glass bottle filled with flammable liquids, with a simple hand-lit fuse. Molotov cocktails were eventually mass-produced by the Finnish Alko corporation and bundled with matches with which to light them. Eighty Soviet tanks were destroyed in the border-zone fighting.

By 6 December, all the Finnish covering forces had withdrawn to the Mannerheim Line. The Red Army began its first major attack against the Line in Taipale—the area between the shore of Lake Ladoga, the Taipale river and the Suvanto waterway. Along the Suvanto sector, the Finns had a slight advantage of elevation and dry ground to dig into. The Finnish artillery had scouted the area and made fire plans in advance, anticipating a Soviet assault. The Battle of Taipale began with a forty-hour Soviet artillery preparation. After the barrage, the Soviet infantry attacked across open ground but was repulsed with heavy casualties. From December 6 to 12, the Red Army continued trying to engage using only one division. The Red Army next strengthened its artillery and brought tanks and the 10th Rifle Division to the Taipale front. On 14 December, the bolstered Soviet forces launched a new attack but were pushed back again. A third Soviet division entered the fight but performed poorly and panicked under shell fire. The assaults continued without success, and the Red Army suffered heavy losses. One typical Soviet attack during the battle lasted just an hour but left 1,000 dead and 27 tanks strewn on the ice.

North of Lake Ladoga on the Ladoga Karelia front, the defending Finnish units relied on the terrain. Ladoga Karelia, as a large forest wilderness, did not have road networks for the modern Red Army. However, the Soviet 8th Army had extended a new railroad line to the border, which could double the supply capability on the front. But on 12 December, the advancing Soviet 139th Rifle Division, supported by the 56th Rifle Division, was defeated by a much smaller Finnish force under Paavo Talvela in Tolvajärvi, the first Finnish victory of the war.

In central and northern Finland, roads were few and the terrain hostile. The Finns did not expect large-scale Soviet attacks, but the Soviets sent eight divisions, heavily supported by armour and artillery. The 155th Rifle Division attacked at Lieksa, and further north the 44th attacked at Kuhmo. The 163rd Rifle Division was deployed at Suomussalmi and charged with cutting Finland in half by marching the Raate Road. In Finnish Lapland, the Soviet 88th and 122nd Rifle Divisions attacked at Salla. The Arctic port of Petsamo was attacked by the 104th Mountain Rifle Division by sea and land, supported by naval gunfire.

Defence of Finland[edit | edit source]

Weather conditions[edit | edit source]

Three diagrams present major assaults by the Red Army.

Major Soviet operations during the winter of 1939–1940

The winter of 1939–1940 was exceptionally cold. One location on the Karelian Isthmus experienced a record low temperature of −43 °C (−45 °F) on 16 January 1940. At the beginning of the war, only those Finnish soldiers who were in active service had uniforms and weapons. The rest had to make do with their own clothing, which for many soldiers was their normal winter clothing with semblance of an insignia added. Finnish soldiers were skilled in cross-country skiing.

Lieutenant Aarne Juutilainen became a national hero for his defence of Finland during the Battle of Kollaa.

The cold, snow, forest, and long hours of darkness were factors that the Finns could use to their advantage. The Finns dressed in layers, and the ski troopers wore a lightweight white snow cape. This snow-camouflage made the ski troopers almost invisible as the Finns executed guerrilla attacks against Soviet columns. At the beginning of the war, Soviet tanks were painted in standard olive drab and men dressed in regular khaki uniforms. Not until late January 1940 did the Soviets paint their equipment white and issue snowsuit to their infantry.

A Finnish soldier with an M-26 machine gun

Most Soviet soldiers had proper winter clothes, but this was not the case with every unit. In the battle of Suomussalmi, many Soviet soldiers died of frostbite. Furthermore, the Soviet troops lacked skill in skiing, so soldiers were restricted to movement by road and were forced to move in long columns. Furthermore, the Red Army lacked proper winter tents, and men had to sleep in improvised shelters. Some Soviet units had frostbite casualties as high as 10% even before crossing the Finnish border. The cold weather did confer one advantage: Soviet tanks were able to move more easily over frozen terrain and bodies of water, rather than being immobilised in swamps and mud.

Tracer fire lights up the sky during a battle.

Before the Winter War, no army had fought in such freezing conditions. In Soviet field hospitals, operations were done and limbs were amputated at −20 °C (−4 °F) while just past the canvas tent wall the temperature was −30 °C. Injured Finnish soldiers could expect a heated operating room. This improved their fighting abilities while hampering Soviet soldiers.

Finnish tactics[edit | edit source]

A Finnish soldier with a Molotov cocktail. The Finns made good use of these improvised incendiary devices against Soviet armor.

In battles from Ladoga Karelia all the way north to the Arctic port of Petsamo, the Finns used guerrilla tactics. The Red Army was superior in numbers and materiel, but the Finns used the advantages of speed, tactics, and economy of force. Particularly on the Ladoga Karelia front and during the battle of Raate road, the Finns isolated smaller portions of numerically superior Soviet forces. With Soviet forces divided into smaller pieces, the Finns could deal with them individually and attack from all sides.

Swedish volunteers carrying Boys anti-tank rifles

For many of the encircled Soviet troops in a pocket, (motti in Finnish, motti also means a bundle of wood), just staying alive was an ordeal comparable to combat. The men were freezing and starving and endured poor sanitary conditions. Historian William R. Trotter describes these conditions thus: "The Soviet soldier had no choice. If he refused to fight, he would be shot. If he tried to sneak through the forest, he would freeze to death. And surrender was no option for him; Soviet propaganda had told him how the Finns would torture prisoners to death."

The Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä was nicknamed "White Death" by the Soviets. He is credited with killing over 500 enemy soldiers, using a Mosin–Nagant rifle. In March 1940 he was shot through the jaw, but lived through the injury.

Defense of the Mannerheim Line[edit | edit source]

A group of soldiers with snowsuits stands in a trench, guns pointed to the left.

Trenches on the Mannerheim Line

A snowy hill with stone barriers and barbed wire in front, and a distant bunker in behind.

Stone barriers and barbed wire on the Mannerheim Line. Further in the background is the Finnish bunker Sj 5.

The terrain on the Karelian Isthmus did not allow the exercise of guerilla tactics, so the Finns were forced to resort to the more conventional Mannerheim Line, with its flanks protected by large bodies of water. Soviet propaganda claimed that it was as strong as or even stronger than the Maginot Line. Finnish historians, for their part, have belittled the line's strength, insisting that it was mostly conventional trenches and log-covered dugouts.

The Finns had built 221 strongpoints along the Karelian Isthmus, mostly in the early 1920s. Many were extended in the late 1930s. Despite these defensive preparations, even the most fortified section of the Mannerheim Line had only one reinforced concrete bunker per kilometre. Overall, the line was weaker than similar lines in mainland Europe. According to the Finns, the real strength of the line were the "stubborn defenders with a lot of sisu" – a Finnish idiom roughly translated as "guts, fighting spirit."

On the eastern side of the isthmus, the Red Army attempted to break through the Mannerheim Line in the battle of Taipale. On the western side, Soviet units faced the Finnish line at Summa, near the city of Viipuri, on 16 December. The Finns had built 41 reinforced concrete bunkers in the Summa area, making the defensive line in this area stronger than anywhere else on the Karelian Isthmus. However, because of a mistake in planning, the nearby Munasuo swamp had a 1 km (0.62 mi)-wide gap in the line. During the first battle of Summa, a number of Soviet tanks broke through the thin line on 19 December, but the Soviets could not benefit from the situation because of insufficient cooperation between branches of service. The Finns remained in their trenches, allowing the Soviet tanks to move freely behind the Finnish line, as the Finns had no proper anti-tank weapons. However, the Finns succeeded in repelling the main Soviet assault. The tanks, stranded behind enemy lines, attacked the strongpoints at random until they were eventually destroyed, 20 in all. By 22 December, the battle ended in a Finnish victory.

The Soviet advance was stopped at the Mannerheim Line. Red Army troops suffered from poor morale and a shortage of supplies, eventually refusing to participate in more suicidal frontal attacks. The Finns, led by General Harald Öhquist, decided to launch a counterattack and encircle three Soviet divisions into a motti near Viipuri on 23 December. Öhquist's plan was bold, but it failed. The Finns lost 1,300 men, and the Soviets were later estimated to have lost a similar number.

Battles in Ladoga Karelia[edit | edit source]

Diagram of the Lake Ladoga battles illustrates the positions and offensives of the Soviet troops. The Red Army invaded dozens of kilometres deep Finland, but stopped at points of Tolvajärvi, Kollaa and almost surrounded near the water of Lake Ladoga.

Battles in Ladoga Karelia, north of Lake Ladoga. The attack of the Soviet 8th Army was stopped at the Finnish defence line on 12 December 1939.

A cannon wears a white blanket on the snow and two men pose side of it.

The most common Finnish artillery was a 76mm gun dating back to around the year 1902 (76 K 02). The gun stands camouflaged in the city of Viipuri in March 1940.

The strength of the Red Army north of Lake Ladoga (in Ladoga Karelia) surprised the Finnish General Staff. Two Finnish divisions were deployed there: the 12th Division led by Lauri Tiainen and the 13th Division led by Hannu Hannuksela. They also had a support group of three brigades, bringing their total strength to over 30,000. The Soviets deployed a division for almost every road leading west to the Finnish border. The Eighth Army was led by Ivan Khabarov, who was replaced by Grigori Shtern on 13 December. The Soviets' mission was to destroy the Finnish troops in the area of Ladoga Karelia and advance into the area between Sortavala and Joensuu within 10 days. The Soviets had a 3:1 advantage in manpower and 5:1 advantage in artillery as well as air supremacy.

Finnish forces panicked and retreated in front of the overwhelming Red Army. The commander of the Finnish IV Army Corps was replaced by Woldemar Hägglund on 4 December. On 7 December, in the middle of the Ladoga Karelian front, Finnish units retreated near the small stream of Kollaa. The waterway itself did not offer protection, but alongside there were ridges up to 10 m (33 ft) high. The battle of Kollaa lasted until the end of the war. A memorable quote, "Kollaa holds" (Finnish: Kollaa kestää) became a legendary motto among the Finns. Further contributing to the legend of Kollaa was the sniper Simo Häyhä, dubbed "the White Death" by Soviets, who served in the Kollaa front. To the north, the Finns retreated from Ägläjärvi to Tolvajärvi on 5 December and then repelled a Soviet offensive in the battle of Tolvajärvi on 11 December.

In the south, two Soviet divisions were united on the northern side of the Lake Ladoga coastal road. As before, these divisions were trapped as the more mobile Finnish units were able to counterattack from the north to flank the Soviet columns. On 19 December, the Finns temporarily ceased their assaults, as the soldiers were exhausted. It was not until the period 6–16 January 1940 that the Finns went on the offensive again, cutting Soviet division into smaller groups of different-sized mottis.

Contrary to Finnish expectations, the encircled Soviet divisions did not try to break through to the east but instead entrenched. They were expecting reinforcements and supplies to arrive by air. As the Finns lacked the necessary heavy artillery equipment and were short of men, they often did not directly attack mottis they had created; instead, they focused on eliminating only the most dangerous threats. Often the motti tactic was not part of pre-planned doctrine but a Finnish adaptation to the behaviour of Soviet troops under fire.

In spite of the cold and hunger, the Soviet troops did not surrender easily but fought bravely, often entrenching their tanks to be used as pillboxes and building timber dugouts. Some specialist Finnish soldiers were called in to attack the mottis; the most famous of them was Major Matti Aarnio, or "Motti-Matti," as he became known.

In northern Karelia, Soviet forces were outmanoeuvred at Ilomantsi and Lieksa. The Finns used effective guerrilla tactics, taking special advantage of superior skiing skills and snow-white layered clothing and executing many surprise ambushes and raids. By the end of December, the Soviets decided to retreat and transfer resources to more critical fronts.

The Suomussalmi–Raate double operation[edit | edit source]

A road in the middle of forest and snow, a frozen body in front and destroyed vehicles in behind.

Soviet equipment and bodies of Red Army soldiers after the Battle of Raate road in January 1940

The Suomussalmi–Raate was a double operation, which would later be used by military academics as a classic example of what well-led troops and innovative tactics can do against a much larger adversary. Suomussalmi was a small provincial town of 4,000. The area has long lakes, many wild forests and few roads. The Finnish command believed that the Soviets would not attack here, but the Red Army committed two divisions to the area with orders to cross the wilderness, capture the city of Oulu and effectively cut Finland in two. There were two roads leading to Suomussalmi from the frontier: the northern Juntusranta road and the southern Raate road.

The battle of Raate road, which occurred during the month-long battle of Suomussalmi, resulted in one of the largest losses in the Winter War. The Soviet 44th and parts of the 163rd Rifle Divisions, comprising about 14,000 troops, were almost completely destroyed by a Finnish ambush as they marched along the forest road. A small unit blocked the Soviet advance while Finnish Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo and his 9th Division cut off the retreat route, split the enemy force into smaller fragments, and then proceeded to destroy the remnants in detail as they retreated. The Soviets suffered 7,000–9,000 casualties, while the Finnish units lost only 400 men. In addition, the Finnish troops captured dozens of tanks, artillery pieces, anti-tank guns, hundreds of trucks, almost 2,000 horses, thousands of rifles, and much-needed ammunition and medical supplies.

Finnish Lapland[edit | edit source]

A woman dressed in thick fur uses binoculars.

A Finnish lotta, a member of the Lotta Svärd women organisation, watching the skies for Soviet aircraft during January 1940 in northern Finland

In Finnish Lapland, the forests gradually thin out until in the north there are no trees at all. Thus, the area offers more room for tank deployment, but it is vastly underpopulated and experiences copious snowfall. The Finns expected nothing more than raiding parties and reconnaissance patrols, but instead the Soviets sent full divisions. On 11 December, the Finns rearranged the defence of Lapland and detached the Lapland Group from the North Finland Group. The group was placed under the command of Kurt Wallenius.

In southern Lapland, near the tiny rural village of Salla, the Soviet force advanced with two divisions, the 88th and 112th, totalling 35,000 men. In the battle of Salla the Soviets advanced easily to Salla, where the road forked. The northern branch moved toward Pelkosenniemi while the rest pushed on toward Kemijärvi. On 17 December, the Soviet northern group, comprising an infantry regiment, a battalion, and a company of tanks, was outflanked by a Finnish battalion. The 112th retreated, leaving much of its heavy equipment and vehicles behind. Following this success, the Finns shuttled reinforcements down to the defensive line in front of Kemijärvi. The Soviets hammered the defensive line without success. The Finns counterattacked, and the Soviets were pushed back to a new defensive line where they stayed for the rest of the war.

To the north was Finland's only ice-free port in the Arctic, Petsamo. The Finns did not have the manpower to defend it fully as the main front was down the Karelian Isthmus. In the battle of Petsamo, the Soviet 104th division attacked the Finnish 104th Independent Cover Company. The Finns gave up Petsamo easily and concentrated on delaying actions. The area was treeless, windy, and relatively low, offering little defensible terrain. However, during the winter, the Finns in Lapland had the advantage of almost constant darkness and extreme temperatures. The Finns executed guerrilla attacks against Soviet supply lines and patrols. As a result, the Soviet movements were halted by the efforts of one-fifth as many Finns.

Soviet breakthrough of the Mannerheim Line[edit | edit source]

Red Army reforms and offensive preparations[edit | edit source]

Frozen Russian soldier propped upright by Finnish troops during the Winter War as a warning to other Russian troops

Joseph Stalin was not pleased with the results of the first month of the Finnish campaign. The Red Army had been humiliated. By the third week of the war, Soviet propaganda was working hard to explain the failures of the Soviet army to the populace: blaming bad terrain and harsh climate, and falsely claiming that the Mannerheim Line was stronger than the Maginot Line, and that the Germans had sent 1,000 of their best pilots to Finland. Chief of Staff Boris Shaposhnikov was given full authority over operations in the Finnish theatre, and he ordered the suspension of frontal assaults in late December. Kliment Voroshilov was replaced with Semyon Timoshenko as the commander of the Soviet forces in the war on 7 January.

Soviet T-26 light tanks of the Soviet 7th Army during its advance on the Karelian Isthmus

The main focus of the Soviet attack was switched to the Karelian Isthmus. Timoshenko and Zhdanov reorganised and tightened control between different branches of service in the Red Army. They also changed tactical doctrines to meet the realities of the situation. All Soviet forces on the Karelian Isthmus were divided into two armies: the 7th and the 13th Armies. The 7th Army, now under Kirill Meretskov, would concentrate 75% of its strength against the 16 km (9.9 mi) stretch of the Mannerheim Line between Taipale and the Munasuo swamp. Tactics would be basic: an armored wedge for the initial breakthrough, followed by the main infantry and vehicle assault force. The Red Army would prepare by pinpointing the Finnish front line fortifications. The 123rd Assault Division then rehearsed the assault on life-size mockups. The Soviets shipped massive numbers of new tanks and artillery pieces to the theater. Troops were increased from ten divisions to 25–26 divisions, six or seven tank brigades and several independent tank platoons, totalling 600,000 men. On 1 February, the Red Army began a massive offensive, firing 300,000 shells into the Finnish line in the first 24 hours of the bombardment.

Soviet offensive on the Karelian Isthmus[edit | edit source]

Red Army soldiers in their trenches. Note that they are wearing dark green helmets and uniforms which make them stand out prominently against the snowy background.

Although the Karelian Isthmus front was less active in January than in December, the Soviets began increasing bombardments, wearing down the defenders and softening their fortifications. During daylight hours, the Finns took shelter inside their fortifications from the bombardments and repaired damage during the night. The situation led quickly to war exhaustion among the Finns, who lost over 3,000 men in trench warfare. The Soviets also made occasional small infantry assaults with one or two companies. Because of the shortage of ammunition, Finnish artillery emplacements were under orders to fire only against directly threatening ground attacks. On 1 February, the Soviets further escalated their artillery and air bombardments.

Although the Soviets refined their tactics and morale improved, the generals were still willing to accept massive losses in order to reach their objectives. Attacks were screened by smoke, heavy artillery, and armor support, but the infantry charged in the open and in dense formations. Unlike their tactics in December, Soviet tanks advanced in smaller numbers. The Finns could not easily eliminate tanks if infantry troops protected them. After 10 days of round-the-clock artillery barrages, the Soviets achieved a breakthrough on the western Karelian Isthmus in the second battle of Summa.

On 11 February, the Soviets had about 460,000 men, over 3,350 artillery pieces, about 3,000 tanks and about 1,300 aircraft deployed on the Karelian Isthmus. The Red Army was constantly receiving new recruits after the breakthrough. Opposing them the Finns had eight divisions, totalling about 150,000 men. One by one, the defenders' strongholds crumbled under the Soviet attacks and the Finns were forced to retreat. On 15 February, Mannerheim authorised a general retreat of the Second Corps to the Intermediate Line. On the eastern side of the isthmus, the Finns continued to resist Soviet assaults, repelling them in the battle of Taipale.

Peace negotiations[edit | edit source]

Although the Finns attempted to re‑open negotiations with Moscow by every means during the war, the Soviets did not respond. In early January, Finnish communist Hella Wuolijoki contacted the Finnish government. She offered to contact Moscow through the Soviet Union's ambassador to Sweden, Alexandra Kollontai. Wuolijoki departed for Stockholm and met Kollontai secretly at a hotel. Soon Molotov decided to extend recognition to the RytiTanner government as the legal government of Finland and put an end to the puppet Terijoki Government of Kuusinen that the Soviets had set up.

By mid-February, it became clear that the Finnish forces were rapidly approaching exhaustion. For the Soviets, casualties were high, the situation was a source of political embarrassment to the Soviet regime, and there was the matter of British intervention. Furthermore, with the spring thaw approaching, the Soviet forces risked becoming bogged down in the forests. The Finnish foreign minister Väinö Tanner arrived in Stockholm on 12 February and negotiated the peace terms with the Soviets through the Swedes. German representatives, not aware that the negotiations were underway, stated on 17 February that German troops would begin their way to Finland after the defeat of France.

However Sweden was keen to see an end to the Winter War. The Germans feared losing a major front against the Soviets while the Norwegians refused to grant British forces right of passage. As the Finnish Cabinet hesitated in the face of the harsh Soviet conditions, Sweden's King Gustav V made a public statement on 19 February in which he confirmed having declined Finnish pleas for support from Swedish troops. On 25 February, the Soviet peace terms were spelled out in detail. On 29 February, the Finnish government accepted the Soviet terms in principle and was willing to enter into negotiations.

Last days of war[edit | edit source]

Diagram of the Karelian Isthmus illustrates the positions and offensives of the Soviet troops.

Situation on the Karelian Isthmus on 13 March 1940, on the last day of the war.

On 5 March, the Red Army advanced 10 to 15 km (6.2 to 9.3 mi) past the Mannerheim Line and entered the suburbs of Viipuri. That same day, the Red Army established a beachhead on the western Gulf of Viipuri. The Finns proposed an armistice on that day, but the Soviets, wanting to keep the pressure on the Finnish government, declined the offer the next day. The Finnish peace delegation went to Moscow via Stockholm and arrived on 7 March. The Soviets made further demands as their military position was strong and improving. On 9 March, the Finnish military situation on the Karelian Isthmus was dire as troops were experiencing heavy casualties. In addition, artillery ammunition supplies were exhausted and weapons were wearing out. The Finnish government, noting that the hoped-for British-German military expedition would not arrive in time, as Norway and Sweden had not given them right of passage, had little choice but to accept the Soviet terms. The formal peace treaty was signed in Moscow on 12 March. A cease-fire took effect the next day at noon Leningrad time, 11 a.m. Helsinki time.

Peace of Moscow[edit | edit source]

The first Soviet demand of a new border line was made on 14 October 1939, and the Finnish made a counteroffer on 23 October. The Soviets made a second proposal, and the Finns responded on 3 November.

Drawing shows that the Finns ceded a small part of the Petsamo Kalastajansaarento, part of Salla in the Finnish Lapland, part of Karelia, islands of the Gulf of Finland and lease Hanko peninsula.

Winter War: Finland's territorial concessions to the Soviet Union

The Moscow Peace Treaty was signed on 12 March 1940 and went into effect the following day. Finland ceded a portion of Karelia—the entire Karelian Isthmus as well as a large swath of land north of Lake Ladoga. The area included Finland's second largest city of Viipuri, much of Finland's industrialised territory, and significant parts still held by Finland's army—all in all, 11% of the territory and 30% of the economic assets of pre-war Finland. Twelve percent of Finland's population, some 422,000 Karelians, were evacuated and lost their homes.

Finland also had to cede a part of the region of Salla, the Kalastajansaarento peninsula in the Barents Sea, and four islands in the Gulf of Finland. The Hanko Peninsula was leased to the Soviet Union as a military base for 30 years. The region of Petsamo, captured by the Red Army during the war, was returned to Finland according to the treaty.

Finnish concessions and territorial losses exceeded those demanded by the Soviets pre-war. Before the war, the Soviet Union demanded that the frontier between the USSR and Finland on the Karelian Isthmus be moved westward to a point only 30 kilometres (19 mi) east of Viipuri, Finland's second-largest city, to the line between Koivisto and Lipola. In addition, the Finns would have to destroy all existing fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus. Finland should also cede to the Soviet Union the islands of Suursaari, Tytärsaari, and Koivisto in the Gulf of Finland. In the north, the Soviets demanded the Kalastajansaarento peninsula. Furthermore, the Finns should lease the Hanko Peninsula to the Soviets for thirty years, and permit the Soviets to establish a military base there. In exchange the Soviet Union would cede Repola and Porajärvi from Eastern Karelia, an area twice as large as the territories demanded from the Finns.

In addition to obtaining all of their pre-war demands, the Soviets acquired the entire Karelian Isthmus as well as a large swath of land north of Lake Ladoga. The Soviets also obtained part of the Salla region, while retaining possession of Repola and Porajärvi.

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